NJ Woman’s Anxiety Helps Spare Her from Jail for Serious Hit-run
A woman who slammed a bicycling teenager onto her windshield — and then tried to cover up the crash instead of stopping to help the severely injured girl — avoided going to jail in part because she suffers from anxiety and mental health issues.
Prosecutors had asked a Superior Court judge to lock up Brittany Keifer for up to a year in county jail but the Point Pleasant woman instead got community service, a year's license suspension and probation after suffering what was described as a panic attack in the courtroom.
Her 14-year-old victim suffered traumatic brain injury and spent weeks in the hospital after the late-night crash in August 2018. The girl's mother, angered by the sentence handed down by Judge Wendel E. Daniels, says there doesn't appear to be real consequences for hitting a person with a car and driving away.
The lawyer for Keifer, however, says the judge had a number of good reasons to keep his 27-year-old client out of jail on the third-degree charge of leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury, to which she pleaded guilty.
Thomas Campo said his client voluntarily surrendered her phone to authorities and gave a "full confession." According to Campo, investigating officers said if Keifer had just pulled over at the time of accident, which was "unavoidable," she would not have received a ticket. Emma-Mae Gnolfo was not wearing a helmet, as required by law, while riding across a 40 mph road at 10:30 at night, he said.
Keifer turned herself in a day after she hit Emma-Mae with her BMW on Route 88. Keifer had fled the scene in an attempt to hide her vehicle and her role in the accident.
Emma-Mae spent weeks in hospital care for a concussion, brain bleeding and a fractured skull.
"We pray that the worst is over and when she's older the brain trauma doesn't lead to something so much worse," Stephanie Gnolfo, Emma-Mae's mom, told New Jersey 101.5 on Thursday.
Gnolfo said that since the accident, her daughter "struggles every day" with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. It feels like any emotional progress made in the several months since the incident was wiped away by a sentence far less severe than her family had hoped for, she said.
"I really thought that us reading our letters to the judge ... Emma standing up there, that it would have had some kind of impact, but we were very disappointed," Gnolfo said. "The minute Brittany started having this quote-unquote anxiety attack in the courtroom, I knew it wasn't going to be jail time."
Keifer's attorney confirmed that his client had an "anxiety/panic attack" during the sentencing. Balancing a number of aggravating and mitigating factors, the judge "found it was in the interest of justice" to not incarcerate his client, Campo said.
Gnolfo and her attorney said that the defendant's mental health was a major part of the sentencing.
"They talked a lot about anxiety and depression, but anxiety and depression doesn't cause someone to choose to leave a child on the side of the road after you hit that child," said Deborah Dunn, an attorney representing the Gnolfo family. "That's the act of a selfish person with a hardened heart."
"They pulled at the judge's heart strings and made Brittany out to be the victim," Gnolfo added.
According to Gnolfo, the judge was presented a "long list of medications" that Keifer is or had been taking, and was told about "bad things that happened in her life."
"I feel like if she was or is taking such heavy medication that maybe she shouldn't have been allowed to be behind the wheel of a vehicle to begin with," Gnolfo said.
Gnolfo is pushing for a new law that would require a mandatory three-year prison term for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury. The measure, reintroduced in January, is under consideration by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee.
Gnolfo is contemplating a lawsuit against Keifer on behalf of Emma-Mae.
Campo said his client has been "publicly harassed" on social media. Someone posted Keifer's number online and she received death threats as a result, he said.
"There's been a lot of negative press, but the reality is (Brittany) is a human being who made a very bad choice that day and was well aware of it, and did everything she could in her power to make it right," Campo said. "Perhaps much good can come from the lessons learned in this case. There is no doubt that the operator of a motor vehicle has an obligation to stop when involved in an accident."
After she struck Emma-Mae, Keifer contacted Kyle Ramos, of Seaside Heights, to pick her up several blocks away from the scene, according to police. Ramos assisted Keifer and attempted to have the vehicle repaired, and turned himself in to law enforcement the following day.
Ramos, 29, in December entered a guilty plea to hindering apprehension or prosecution and will be sentenced at a later date.